Image credit: Getty images
Date:28 February 2009 Tags:, , , , ,

Reports from the edge of science.

Desktop earthquake detectors
Many laptops have tiny accelerometers that warn a computer that it is being dropped so it can protect its hard drive from impact. Researchers at two California universities realised that these sensors could be used to form a cheap network to detect earthquakes quickly enough to provide useful warnings.

Operators of the Quake-Catcher Network ( are recruiting laptop owners to download software that converts their computers to sensors. Like a screen saver, the software operates only when the computer is idle. The system's largest success occurred last July, when computers detected a magnitude 5,4 quake that caused moderate damage near Los Angeles.

Measuring the great melt
A Nasa satellite mission has enabled scientists to 'weigh' Alaskan glaciers. The GRACE mission consists of two satellites orbiting about 220 km apart; the distance between them varies depending on the gravitational pull from the area they're flying over. By calculating the weight change every 10 days, researchers determined that Gulf of Alaska glaciers are losing 76 gigatons of mass each year . equivalent to the volume of Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the United States.

Keyed in to paranoia
Computer scientists from the University of California San Diego have developed a program that can produce duplicates of a key based only on a photograph. They've demonstrated the system using a snapshot of a key taken by a cellphone camera, and have also used a photo of keys sitting on a cafe table taken with a 13 cm telephoto lens from the roof of a building 60 m away. The bumps and valleys of a key are coded to numeric sequences that are simple for imagerecognition software to unravel. The software hasn't been made public – but watch your keys, anyway.

Superpower grid
Siemens recently unveiled the world's first 800-kilovolt transformer, a key component in an extra-high-voltage line that will carry power between the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangdong. When completed in 2010, the 1 400 km transmission line will use 10 of the new 464-ton transformers, each of which is 10,3 m tall. Capable of handling 6 400 megawatts, the planned transmission link will be the longest in the world and will carry the most juice.

Predictive weather vanes
A new sensor that anticipates wind direction could increase the power generated by wind turbines. The system, built by Virginiabased Catch the Wind, shoots a laser to detect the speed and direction of air particles 300 m away. The warning gives the turbine time to turn toward the wind or adjust its blade angles to avoid damage from powerful gales. Inventors hope turbines equipped with the system will increase power output by 10 per cent.

Air Car's shot at street cred
The concept of compressed air-powered vehicles took a step closer to credibility when Air France and KLM agreed to conduct a six-month trial of the AirPods built by Luxembourg company MDI. The 220 kg, four-seat vehicles will be used to ferry people around airports near Paris and Amsterdam. A US company hopes to release a six-seat version of MD's cars by 2010.

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